Ashland Middle School students are bringing in this season's ripe harvest by the bucketful.
Their less-than-a-quarter-acre garden has pushed up close to 100 pounds of produce so far this season, most of which has gone to livening up the students' school lunches.
Picking through the garden is a good way to kick off a week of school, said eighth-grader Miles O'Hara-Brown, chewing on a cherry tomato pulled from his topped-off jug of produce.
"I just like being outside," said the 13-year-old, who was with Candice Chapman's foods class Monday morning looking for ingredients in the garden.
The class plans to make roasted pasta sauce, Chapman said.
"We try to emphasize that you need to cook what you have," she said. "I think this is a good way for students to learn about where our food comes from "… learn that you can't just grab everything in a box off the shelf."
Seventh-graders Katherine Akins and Rosanna Widner, who were in the garden for the first time, were surprised by how quickly their bowls filled up after picking for less than 30 minutes.
The girls stretched for out-of-reach blackberries and hunched over cramped rows of carrots, squashes and peppers, while others scanned through what was left on the tomato vines, which shed 42 pounds last week.
"We overloaded our cafeteria "… it was the first time this year that we sent stuff to the other schools," said Eric Sandrock, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at AMS who established the garden for students in 1998.
"You can't take a step around here without squashing a tomato," said Chapman, pointing to the bruised and over-ripened red blobs scattered around the garden that didn't make the cut.
The sunflowers have mesh bags tied over their dinner plate-sized heads, ready to be shaken for seeds, she explained, and the potatoes are a few days away.
There is probably over 40 pounds of spuds in the ground, said Sandrock, who fully expects this season's harvest to surpass the 100-pound mark, where the garden's yield typically ends up at the end of autumn.
This is the first year students are planting a fall-winter crop outside, he said. The school is also waiting to hear back from the Ashland Schools Foundation about a $500 grant, which would be used to start a greenhouse at AMS.
"We'll find a way to make the greenhouse work," whether the money is granted or not, Sandrock said.
Every school in the district has a garden, but the middle school's is the most productive, said Tracy Harding, executive director of Rogue Valley Farm to School, which disperses a $450 stipend to the coordinators of each garden annually and offers them training.
That money comes from the city of Ashland's arts, sustainability, tourism and economic development grant, she said.
Students at John Muir School, a kindergarten-though-eighth-grade program connected to AMS, care for a similarly sized garden next to the middle school's.
Gema Soto, Ashland School District food service director, said the John Muir/AMS gardens offloaded more than 61 pounds of onions, green beans and carrots to other schools last year.
The AMS garden produces nowhere near enough produce to supply the kitchen year-round, Sandrock said, but students always seem to enjoy their peers' pickings.
"I wouldn't want a school that only has processed food in the cafeteria," said eighth-grader Bowan Lloyd. "This is just plain, straight from the garden, and it's all good."
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.